Gossip columnist John McEntee tells Fiona O’Brien about his new book focussing on his Cavan childhood and life in London showbiz circles, and why he became known as the ‘Man who killed the oldest man in Ireland’
John McEntee’s mother was hailed as a hero back in the 1980s, for trying her best to resuscitate a dying priest after he had collapsed outside of her front door.
“She wasn’t really, she knew his number was up and was just trying to get the £20 note that she had given him out of his top pocket again,” says the renowned diarist.
His memoir I’m Not One To Gossip But… is full of such tales of calamity, that spread throughout his childhood to his coming of age in Dublin while learning his craft as a ‘real’ journalist.
“I have grown up children and I used to always tell them these stories which would be met with disbelief, and it was only as I got older I realised that these characters I’d met weren’t necessarily the norm and I wanted to write about it.
“I originally thought I’d do something about my Cavan childhood but then I extended that to working in Dublin and then I went the whole hog and thought I’d include my time in various newspapers in London.
“I thought I’d base it more on my mother, who was sort of an eccentric character and my time in Cavan growing up.”
One such story is after he fell out, and made up, with Richard Harris he bumped into him in a pub, just after he had brought a Mother’s Day card to send back home.
“We had fallen out, but he welcomed me over for a few drinks. A few hours later he asked me what the card was for. By this stage it was covered in ring marks from our pint glasses, and he asked how much money I would send home.
“When I said £50, he called me a tight Cavan so-and-so and told me to send £100, before proceeding to write the card himself.
“A few days later my mother rang me and thanked me for the card but said she could not read a word of it. I told her Richard Harris had written it, and she always thought he was such a lovely man afterwards, assuming he had enclosed the money too!”
As well as further humourous anecdotes about his mother, one notably about her second Winning Streak win, is a tale from John’s own time cutting his teeth as a ‘real journalist’.
He and photographer Ray Cullen were sent to interview Ireland’s oldest man, on one of their four day excursions down the country to sniff out regional stories for the Sunday Press.
“It was an absolutely miserable day. It would be unheard of now that journalists would be allowed to leave the office on a Monday, and spend three or four nights away without getting back in touch with the office.
“We’d go looking for local stories to put in the Sunday edition, arrive back on the Thursday and write up the story. We heard of a local man aged 107 who was fronting a charity campaign, so turned up at his house on a miserable day.
“A woman answered and I asked if she was Mrs McCarthy and she said ‘No, I’m his daughter’. I turned to the photographer and gave him the thumbs up thinking ‘Jesus, if she’s the daughter, we’re in the right place…’
“We asked if we could come in and if he was around but she said ‘My father’s been in bed for two years’ and that the walk was ‘supposed to be happening’. I said: ‘Any chance of getting him up for the Sunday Press?’
“I interviewed him and later the photographer wanted a picture of him looking out of the door of his thatched cottage.
“He agreed and posed and posed and posed. He was going blue, by the time he got back to the table he was frozen.
“We shook hands, thanked the daughter and Jeremiah and left. The piece appeared in the Sunday Press and I’ll never forget it. It was called ‘Ireland’s oldest man (107) to start charity work in Kilkenny’ with a lovely picture of Jeremiah posing outside his house.
“However, the following morning I was working for the Evening Press and on my way in on the bus and saw one with the front page: ‘Ireland’s oldest man dies’! Jeremiah had got a chill and died that day. Anytime I’m back in Dublin and I see Ray Cullen, I tell him: ‘You killed Ireland’s oldest man!’ to which he always replies ‘No! It was f***in’ you!’
The rest of the book is filled with stories about old Hollywood glamour such as Richard Harris and Maureen O’Hara as well as the climate in the UK in the 1980s, for Irish people living there in the height of the IRA bombing campaign on British soil.
“Terry Wogan was a great ambassador for Ireland”
He also speaks fondly of his friendship with Terry Wogan, as well as a funny story about the recently deceased Caroline Aherne, who actually provides the main story in the prologue.
“Terry, or Sir Terry, was such a great ambassador for Ireland. He was so kind and never forgot where he came from as a proud Limerick man, but he was happy and grateful for the life he had in the UK.
“He helped me out tremendously and was so generous. I remember sometimes asking him for help on a story that he was doing and he’d just say… ‘leave it with me’.
“He would end up writing the piece for me entirely, and it would be better than what I could have done in the first place!
“He got a lot of stick for taking the knighthood and calling himself Sir, but as he later explained to me he did not have to take British citizenship in order to call himself Sir as he was born prior to 1947 before the Republic was declared.
“I knew he was sick, but many of us, Fr Brian D’Arcy included, did not know how badly. It was when he pulled out of Children in Need I knew the story wasn’t good.
“He always knew the right time to give up on some commitments such as the Radio or Eurovision or quiz shows, he said he would always do Children in Need for as long as he could.
“The world isn’t as bright a place without him in it.”